After a span of warm, wet weather in the week leading up to Christmas, winter is reasserting its presence in Northwest Montana, bringing cold temperatures and snow. And as early season conditions mature, backcountry recreationalists once again have a host of educational opportunities open to anyone looking to travel safely in the snow – whether it’s on a snowmobile or a pair of skis.
The Flathead National Forest and Glacier County Avalanche Center are sponsoring their annual advanced avalanche awareness class for skiers, snowboarders, snow-shoers and mountaineers. The four indoor sessions are scheduled for Jan. 4, 6, 11 and 13 from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the U.S. Forest Service office in north Kalispell. The free classes, which can serve as a primer for the beginning backcountry traveler or a refresher for those with experience, will cover avalanche terrain, mountain weather, snowpack and the assessment of its stability, decision-making and avalanche rescue.
“The mountains really are our backyard here,” Leah Taylor, an avalanche safety educator for the basic awareness classes, said. “People do owe it to their friends and family to do everything they can to stay safe out there.”
The advanced avalanche awareness class will also include two days in the field, Jan. 9 and 16, the locations and times for which have yet to be scheduled.
The rules for safe backcountry travel on snowmobiles differ from those on non-motorized toys, which is why an advanced awareness for snowmobilers is scheduled for Jan. 25 and 27, and Feb. 1 and 3, also at the Forest Service office in Kalispell. Field sessions for the snowmobilers’ class are scheduled for Jan. 30 and Feb. 6.
Taylor said a recent snow safety presentation held at Penco Power Products was well attended by snowmobilers. That was part of a new series of presentations offered this year on various aspects of avalanche danger and winter weather. Earlier in December, Stan Bones, an avalanche specialist for the Forest Service, led a three-hour talk on how global weather patterns contribute to early season snowpack in the Flathead region.
January will feature an Avalanche Awareness Day Jan. 23 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the summit of Big Mountain with workshops on snow science, the beacon park, search and rescue techniques and other information. The session will also offer the opportunity to win prizes – if the prospect of avoiding avalanches isn’t already enough motivation to attend some of these classes. For more information visit glacieravalanche.org or call 758-5295.
For those looking for snow safety education that offers an official level of certification, Whitefish Backcountry offers three-day courses in avalanche safety certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). Scheduled for Jan. 25, 26 and 27, the Level 1 class, “Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain,” will give students the skills to prepare and plan for trips in avalanche country, recognize avalanche terrain, make decisions when traveling in the backcountry and rescue companions caught in slides.
Whitefish Backcountry is newly a nonprofit, and Ben Stormes, who runs it, says his classes offer a better student-teacher ratio, though the official certification will cost you. The Level 1 class is priced at $295. The AIARE Level 2 class, “Analyzing Snow Stability and Avalanche Hazard,” scheduled for March, costs $495 and is aimed at taking the skills of experienced backcountry travelers even further.
Stormes will also give presentations on avalanche awareness at locations throughout the valley. The White Room is hosting on Jan. 6, and others have yet to be scheduled. In addition, Whitefish Backcountry will offer one-day, free avalanche safety courses tentatively scheduled for Jan. 5 and 13. For more info on dates, times and prices, visit whitefishbackcountry.com or call 270-1057.
Bluebird Guides, run by Canadian-certified alpine guide Greg Franson, will be running multi-day snow safety sessions at Rogers Pass in British Columbia’s Selkirk Range, focused on decision-making, snowpack assessment and movement in avalanche terrain. For more info, visit bluebirdguides.com or call 249-5812.
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